Labor reignites the games debate
Michelle Rowland: Labor is not treating games development as a niche sector
Federal Labor is currently putting its own policy package together to support the burgeoning Australian games development sector with “holistic” initiatives to fill the gap left by the government’s “highly disappointing” response to the long-awaited games report.
A revamped investment fund, tax breaks and skilled migration programs are all on the table for the federal opposition, following a roundtable on Wednesday between industry representatives and shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland.
Participants including Interactive Games and Entertainment Association CEO Ron Curry and other representatives from around the country discussed what was needed to replace the scrapped $20 million interactive games fund, how to change the outside perceptions of the industry and how the sector fits into the broader innovation picture.
The discussions and further engagement with the sector will guide Labor’s games development policy package, which will be unveiled before the next federal election.
While not revealing which of the policies discussed during the roundtable Labor will pursue, Ms Rowland said Labor is looking to take a broad, “holistic” approach to policy development in the space.
“We’re working on a policy announcement [but] the most important thing is to engage with the sector, and take on board the diversity of views and experience in order to really craft a well-developed policy,” she told InnovationAus.com.
“We’re looking at all facets of it. This isn’t perceived by us as being a niche issue – it feeds into the creative industry, national identity, media and technology. We’re looking at doing something that’s very holistic.”
It comes a month after the federal government tabled its long-awaited response to a Senate inquiry into the local games development sector, which largely rejected all of the policy recommendations.
The response was broadly slammed by the local sector, which says that since the $20 million Interactive Games Fund was scrapped in 2014, the federal government does not offer any support to the local games sector.
Labor is looking to recommit to a games fund if it wins the next federal election. This formed a large part of the roundtable discussion.
“The way we’re approaching it is not limited to looking at this in terms of individual grants with funding envelopes. We want to look at what else needs to be done in the long-term to make the sector sustainable and reap the benefits,” Ms Rowland said.
“We had a really good discussion about different models for providing assistance for the industry, depending on where the particular game development person is at any point in time. It’s really not a one-size fits all approach."
This week also saw the Greens “lay down the gauntlet” to the major parties with a commitment to the games development community, including a $100 million games development fund, extension of tax breaks offered to the film industry, and $5 million for co-working spaces.
“There’s a sad void at the moment where substantive policy and support mechanisms should be. This is the conversation we are hoping to kickstart with this initiative, to draw attention to this absence, to celebrate where the industry has got to in spite of that absence and to look to the future of what we might be able to do,” Greens video games spokesperson Jordon Steele-John told InnovationAus.com.
“We’re laying down the gauntlet with this policy. This is an incredible part of our culture and our artistic landscape, and it’s a significant part of the economy. The legislators are playing catch-up here.
"A lot of us that work in Parliament don’t understand the extent of the industry, but the Australian public is increasingly valuing the contribution that the video games industry makes.”
The Labor-convened roundtable also discussed the current perception of gaming and how this can be changed.
“There was an excellent discussion around the perceptions of gamers and the perception that it’s just kids that are gaming, when we know the average age is 34. It’s a multibillion dollar industry with potential for huge exports,” Ms Rowland said.
“This is one of those whole-of-economy industries - it’s got creative elements, technology, software and elements that feed into education, STEM training in schools and technology in terms of access to broadband.”
Entertainment Software Association of Canada Jayson Hilchie also participated in Labor’s roundtable as a guest of IGEA. He spoke to how the Canadian government helped to develop the local games development sector into one of the biggest in the world with a range of policy initiatives.
Mr Hilchie said the Australian government should look towards extending tax breaks on offer to the film industry to games developers, launching a new investment fund, and improving skilled migration if it wants to grow the local industry.
“It’s definitely possible, Australia just needs to put the right environment in place for companies to want to build and invest here. There is a lot of opportunity here. If you want to build an innovative economy based on young, highly skilled and paid people, I can’t think of a better industry to support than the video game industry,” Mr Hilchie told InnovationAus.com.
Mr Hilchie said the Opposition seemed open to these policies.
“There was a lot of consensus around what needed to be done. Everybody has their own opinions as to what might work and might not but ultimately it was very constructive,” he said.
Labor is looking to plug the support gap left currently by the government. However, communications minister Mitch Fifield said during a Senate Estimates hearing last week that the inquiry response wouldn’t be the end of things.
“The usual practice isn’t for government to develop and announce policy by way of a response to a parliamentary committee report. More often than not that’s not the vehicle through which new policy is announced. The parliamentary committee reports are an important input to the deliberations of government,” Senator Fifield said.
Ms Rowland slammed the Coalition’s response and lack of support for the games development community.
“For a government and in particular a PM that has talked up innovation so much, this was yet again an extremely disappointing response. The response really showed that for all their talk of innovation they don’t have a digital economy strategy and are not seriously engaging in this space,” she said.
“The response from the government clearly doesn’t show any excitement for the sector or the passion that should be there if you’re looking to take advantage of Australia being in such a good position.”
Ms Rowland said Labor’s policy package would also include safeguards to ensure the initiatives are continued even with a change in government, in an effort to avoid what happened with the interactive games fund from occurring again.
“The participants today were lamenting the lack of certainty, that whenever there’s a change of government in so many areas there are programs and initiatives that are scrapped just for fiscal reasons, without a long-term outlook,” she said.
“That was the way the sector felt about the interactive games fund. The industry is looking for continuity, a long-term vision and by engaging with them today I think it’s very apparent that they are very keen to continue this conversation.”
With Labor currently formulating its policies and the government also promising more support, Senator Steele-John said it’s time for the major parties to back their rhetoric with real policies.
“So far there’s been a bit of silence unfortunately, but I hope that in the coming weeks and months - hopefully not years - the other parties take up our call to action in this space and produce substantive initiatives to match our own,” he said.